Google’s Chrome OS: Redefining the Battlefield for Computer Operating Systems

This week, in a move that seemed long overdue, Google officially dropped the “beta” label from GMail, Google Docs, Google Calendar and Google Talk, presumably as an indication that these products are now fully enterprise ready and can serve as worthy alternatives to the Microsoft Office productivity suite for certain applications.

Shortly following this, in an action that goes to the heart of Microsoft’s revenue model and business strategy, the company announced plans to develop its own operating system, dubbed Google Chrome OS.

Chrome OS will be based on the open source Linux operating system and is intended to be, as the announcement in Google’s blog states, “fast and lightweight” in order to “get you onto the web in a few seconds.” In contrast to Google’s Android operating system — designed for devices such as mobile phones, set-top boxes and entry level netbooks — Google claims that Chrome OS “is being designed to power computers ranging from small netbooks to full-size desktop systems.”

Rather than challenge Microsoft on its own turf, however, the language in Google’s announcement indicates that the company wants to refine the operating system and, in doing so, move the battle onto a different playing field — the web.

According to Google, Chrome OS is an attempt to “re-think what operating systems should be.” In what could be viewed as a series of swipes at Microsoft’s operating systems, the Google announcement goes on to say:

“People want to get to their email instantly, without wasting time waiting for their computers to boot and browsers to start up. They want their computers to always run as fast as when they first bought them. They want their data to be accessible to them wherever they are and not have to worry about losing their computer or forgetting to back up files. Even more importantly, they don’t want to spend hours configuring their computers to work with every new piece of hardware, or have to worry about constant software updates.”

Most revealing, perhaps, is Google’s statement that with Chrome OS, “all web-based applications will automatically work and new applications can be written using your favorite web technologies.” This may indicate Google’s primary motivation in moving into the operating system business — to drive software development toward web-based applications, rather than traditional OS-specific software.

As Knowledge at Wharton noted in an article titled “Why Is Microsoft Afraid of Google?,” published in 2005, the contest between Microsoft and Google is about more than search. Google’s long-term challenge to Microsoft is also based on “Google’s existing and potential products … [which] raise the specter that the behemoth of Redmond, Wash., may witness the erosion of its control over the platform for the next generation of software application development.”

As the Knowledge at Wharton article states, “[M]any in the computer business have long believed that the core platform could be moved to a higher level, that technology gurus could establish a web-based platform that runs in the browser and is written in the language of the browser rather than the language of the operating system.”

Google’s Chrome OS appears to be designed to do exactly that.